Bright Old Thing

D.A.N. Jones

  • Letters of Conrad Russell: 1897-1947 edited by Georgiana Blakiston
    Murray, 278 pp, £16.95, May 1987, ISBN 0 7195 4382 7

Conrad Russell was a nephew of the ninth Duke of Bedford: every publisher in Great Russell Street and Bedford Square must have wanted to publish his selected letters, if only from simple loyalty to the landowner. Russell’s life was not remarkable, on the surface. Evelyn Waugh said he was ‘exquisitely entertaining’, but this is ambiguous: he may have meant that Russell was a figure of fun, like William Boot. When Russell died in 1947 he was described in the Times as ‘that most endearing of Somerset farmers’ – the best tribute they could come up with. Russell was ever a countryman, proud of his mangels: raised in rural Surrey, he was discomposed in towns. He wrote to his sister in 1902 when he was 24: ‘I have never found London life so unattractive before. The young men at Scoones do not amuse me much but I seem to amuse them for they laugh consumedly every time I open my mouth. I think it is because my voice is different from theirs.’ Worse was to come. In 1937 he wrote to Diana Cooper about a member of his London club who had raised an objection about Russell ‘talking farming’. The complaint ran: ‘It’s really unbearable. I sometimes think I’ll scream, it suffocates me.’ Russell concedes: ‘Well, you never see yourself as others see you. I’m THE club bore and never knew it.’

Londoners, even now, may feel inclined to join in that old scream of boredom when confronted with Russell’s letter to Katharine Asquith in 1925: ‘The Mangels are in the pulling and now one sees ’em in heaps they make a fine show ... The Kale too is very good. The Wheat is up and green.’ He was an eager, Boot-like birdwatcher, but in his youth had few other aesthetic pleasures, confessing to his sister: ‘Pictures give me no pleasure, architecture a little but practically none. Sculpture absolutely none, moreover music, poetry and singing give me no pleasure. It is a sad fact.’ He was never sent to school and could not spell. It is all too easy to present him as Squire Booby of Booby Hall. Before going up to Oxford he had to be coached by a Mr Smith (later the Master of Balliol), while Mrs Smith endeavoured to enliven him by singing a comic song: ‘My jolly red nose, caused by gin, I suppose.’ Despite intensive coaching, he nearly failed the Oxford entrance test, which consisted of easy General Knowledge questions about the Holy Bible.

The poor booby was then made to study Modern History and, in his frustration and grief, he made a bonfire of his furniture in a quadrangle. He would have liked to read Greats, but feared he was not clever enough: in his maturity he tried to read Latin verse, Greek philosophy and Ancient History, hoping to catch up with his very clever friends and understand the meaning of life. ‘He was ungraceful in movement and he early acquired a stoop,’ writes his niece, Georgiana Blakiston. ‘His long legs were slightly bent when he walked and he turned his large feet out in a position sometimes known as ten minutes to two.’

The photographs in her book promote her view of young Russell as ‘a wistful childish figure with drooping head and downcast eyes’, and show that the older Russell maintained the same hopeless, slouching stance. We see him propped up between two of his correspondents, Katharine Asquith and Diana Cooper: they seem to fear he might fall over. In his Home Guard uniform Russell resembles the lovable Godfrey of Dad’s Army, so that it is horrid to imagine what a beastly sergeant-major might say to him: ‘Well, well, what have we here? Is it a Womble? Is it Winnie-the-Pooh?’

In fact, Russell was always treated with loving care by the lower ranks, who found no fault in him. There is another picture of Russell looking rather tragic in a mangel-field with three Somerset yokels, a boy and a dog. Among them are the much-quoted Brixey and Carter Mounty. Russell was fond of them: he wrote to Katharine Asquith in 1930:

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